By Mike Rowbottom

Mike Rowbottom(58)There was no Inter-Galactic Squash championship last year. But if there had been, the chances are that Nick Matthew would have won it. After all, he won practically everything else in 2010.

When the 30-year-old from Sheffield overcame fellow Yorkshireman James Willstropin Saudi Arabia a fortnight before Christmas to become the first Englishman to winthe World Open title since the competition began in 1976, he rounded off 12 months of outstanding success, having already won two Commonwealth gold medals at the Delhi Games and seven major Tour titles.

And as 2010 has turned into 2011, Matthew is officially established as the world's number one squash player.

Yet despite his accomplishments, and those of several of his England colleagues, there was no mention of squash in this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year programme.

It would surely be very different in a couple of years' time if Matthew and Co had the opportunity of demonstrating their talents at the London 2012 Olympics in full viewof terrestrial TV viewers.

But that ship has long since sailed as far as squash is concerned.

As indeed has the next ship out of harbour, as concerted attempts to introduce thegame to the London Games of 2012 and the Rio Games of 2016 have been rejected.

Matthew's frustration at the continuing exclusion from the Olympics of a sport that has been a core event in the Commonwealth Games since 1998 is palpable.

"Like all the England players, I did all I could to support the bid last year," he tells insidethegames. "We were told that squash had ticked all the boxes as far as Olympic requirements went, with its global appeal, the ease with which it could be staged and its attraction for young players.

"I think in the end it was a bit like the recent decision on who got the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals. These decisions are never black-and-white. There is a lot of politics behind them.

"I'm not questioning the merits of the sports that did get included. But in terms of Olympic ideals, it was very disappointing that squash did not get the nod. And it was especially disappointing for the English game when you consider the level of success it is enjoying right now."

Matthew's frustration is mirrored by five of his male England colleagues who have also made the world's top 20 going into the New Year – Willstrop (4), Peter Barker (8), Daryl Selby (10), Adrian Grant (17) and Alister Walker (20).

The English women's game would also clearly be capable of making good on homeground give that the latest world rankings show three England players in the top 10 – Jenny Duncalf (2), Alison Waters (3) and Laura Massaro (9).


"Being involved in the Olympics would be beyond anything squash has known so far," Matthew continues. "But we have almost got used to being overlooked – there wasn't a single mention for the sport during the BBC Sports Personality programme, for instance.

"Despite that, squash will continue to knock on the door of the Olympics. We will keep knocking until we get in.

"My chances of playing there have gone, so maybe I will have to experience it as a coach. But this generation of players owes it to the next generation to do everythingthey can to support the efforts to get squash accepted into the Olympics."

For his part, Matthew has already shown he is adept at seeking the positives in a big negative.

In 2008 he underwent an operation in which the bicep on his playing arm had to be re-attached to his shoulder.

"I didn't touch a racquet for six months, and I was out of action for nine months altogether," he recalls. "People have asked me since if I thought I would ever be able to regain my previous fitness, but to be honest it never really occurred to me that I wouldn't get back.

"I decided I was going to use my time out to best advantage. When you are involved in playing on the tour you can actually lose a lot of fitness because in between matches you are resting or travelling.

"So although my exercises were limited initially, I was able to concentrate fully on my fitness after the operation. Even though I wasn't able to run until three or four months later, I was able to get on the static bike with my arm in a sling two days after getting out of hospital."

And while Matthew was concentrating as never before on maximising his physical fitness, he was also working on the tactical and psychological elements of his game, with the latter element being directed by the specialist whose talents have just helped England's cricketers to retain the Ashes in Australia -
Mark Bawden.

"Mark is a great influence on me," says Matthew. "My being injured meant we had the opportunity to sit down and go through a lot of stuff we had been planning todiscuss for some time.

"We watched recordings of a lot of my matches and tried to work out how it was thatI had been able to get to number five in the world rankings regularly without being able to establish myself any higher.


"Mark helped me to make a small but telling shift in the way I approached my training. He told me about his experiences while working with some of Manchester United's players. For instance, he said David Beckham did not spend much time intraining working on his heading, or his left foot. He spent most of his time working on his strengths - taking free kicks, and crossing from the right - which were things he could do better than almost anyone else in the game.

"I found that very interesting. So I made a shift in training from working on my weaknesses to concentrating on my strengths, giving them perhaps 80 per cent of mytime.

"I remember Mark asking me once what I thought were my two greatest strengths. Itold him I was one of the best volleyers in the game, and one of the fittest players. Hisreply took me by surprise. He said 'Come back to me when you are the best volleyerin the game, and the fittest player.'

"But now I think I can probably say that is true."

In terms of his general approach, Matthew is reminiscent of one of the sport's all-time greats, Jonah Barrington, who won the British Open - then the unofficial world championship - six times between 1967 and 1973.

Such was Barrington's attritional fanaticism that he entitled his sporting autobiography 'Murder in the Squash Court: the only way to win' and liked to refer to squash as "boxing with racquets".

Matthew's accomplishments last year mean that he is now operating at the level previously inhabited by the likes of Barrington and the only other Brit to have won a World Open title, Peter Nicol, who did so in 1999 on behalf of Scotland.

"I am flattered to be mentioned in such company," Matthew says. "But I don't really think of myself in those terms. Maybe when I look back on my career I will look atthings differently.

"It's hard to compare players from different eras. When Jonah was playing it was a different game, played with wooden racquets. But I have heard that he appreciates myattritional attitude, which is great to hear.

"Not that that is the only successful tactic in the game. Some of the Egyptian players, for instance, may not be quite as fit as the Europeans, but they have racquet skills which can turn matches for them.

"That is what makes it such a beautiful sport. There is not just one way to win."

Having made that point, however, Matthew is still contemplating a year like no other in terms of his personal success.

If the year after he came back from injury was good for him - he won his second British Open after defeating Willstrop in the final - 2010 qualified as an annus mirabilis.

"2009 was fantastic for me," he says. "I went from being world number 12 to world number two in 12 months. But 2010 almost blew that away. I've never had a year like it."

Matthew began 2010 by winning his third British National Championship title - then went on to collect PSA World Tour trophies in Sweden, USA, London, Cairo and Canberra before overcoming Willstrop in Delhi to win the Commonwealth Games singles gold medal.


Two months later in Delhi, Matthew again defeated Willstrop in the final of the PSA World Open, which was held on the same court in Saudi Arabia on which he had lostan epic two-hour match the previous year against the then world number one, Egypt's Ramy Ashour, whose injury put him out of this year's World Open in the second round.

"The biggest thing that hit home after my triumph was that I had become the first Englishman to have won it," says Matthew. "That's something that nobody can takeaway from me forever."

Matthew returned to New Delhi for the final PSA Super Series event of the year. Victory in the Punj Lloyd PSA Masters not only earned him his seventh Tour title ofthe year, but assured his status as world number one in the January 2011 rankings.

"It's been a dream year," Matthew adds, looking back at his Commonwealth Games, World Open and world ranking successes. "They were my goals at the beginning of the year and I set my sights high, so to have achieved all three is amazing - something that was perhaps more of a dream goal rather than a realistic one!

"The world number one spot was obviously a reward for consistency over the year; the Commonwealth golds transcend the sport and reach far greater audiences than just within squash itself; and becoming world champion means you were the best player when everyone really, really wanted to peak."

With no Olympics in prospect, Matthew is switching his long-term ambitions to retaining his Commonwealth title at the 2014 Glasgow Games. In the meantime he is planning to have a New Year conversation with Bawden to consolidate his recent gains.

"I have been speaking to Mark about trying to create a legacy," Matthew says. "Not just one, but two or three titles."

Matthew's Olympian ambitions may have been denied; his competitive intensity remains.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames